March 09, 2017
By Lapacazo Sandoval
Gerard McMurray's complicated but utterly entertaining drama “Burning Sands,” which will debut on Netflix March 10th centers on the controversial “underground” frat hazing at an all-black college. That’s just the jumping off point.
At first glance one might ask “where is the African-American unity” but just like real life, you have to peer deeper and decide to listen and to hear the words being uttered by the central characters. Through this prism of the societal construct called fraternity, we see our history reflected in shattered shards.
The story opens as aspiring inductees are entering the dreaded Hell Week and being put through their paces by their future big brothers on the low-down since their fraternity has been banned due to hazing infractions in the recent past.
The screenplay by first-time screenwriters Christine Berg and director Gerard McMurray has a fearless, honest tone and does not flinch in demonstrating just how brutal some of the big brothers are in constantly roughing up the pledgees. Beating after beating, one young man is kicked off the line, leaving five aspirants to ponder their place in the fraternity and question brotherhood on a wider canvas. All this, mind you, while they struggle to maintain academic demands and their personal lives.
Here is where the director [Gerard McMurray] shines and does not waste any frame. These are people we all know. These are people we might be and we understand them even if we don’t agree with them completely. The desire to become a member of Greek life and not remain a “God dam individual” is about belonging to something and what that something is goes way above just claiming frat status.
In the lead is Zurich (Trevor Jackson), a bright, handsome and compassionate young man who has a serious girlfriend and, being watched over by a concerned professor (Alfre Woodard) who can see his natural leadership qualities.
As they begin the long march to “cross the burning sands” ever day becomes more challenging than the day before for the pledgees. Their big brothers grow restless and the name calling escalates, along with the beatings which in Zurich’s case, causes a fractured rib which compromises his breathing— which he tries to hide..
There are many humorous moments in the film and just enough sex scenes to keep the male viewers interested. Feminist should cheer because McMurray’s women are strong and thankfully three-dimensional. A welcome change to African-American women as sex objects. There is one memorable scene when the pledgees are commanded, by their big brother, to have sex with a local women (non greek) who loves sex and uses it to please only herself. Principled and loyal Zurich finds a creative way not to cheat and provides some of the more interesting conversations wrapped around intimacy.
Hell Night can not come soon enough, as the pledgees are in-fighting and dangerously close to coming unglued. With a term paper hanging over his head, Zurich dives into the wisdom of
Frederick Douglass a needed remedy for his cracking spirit and broken body to hobble to the finish line—to cross the burning sands—and join the brotherhood.
McMurray, who worked as an associate producer on “Fruitvale Station,” and has an executive producer credit on “Burning Sands.” He is an excellent storyteller and despite some poor reviews, I feel strongly that my esteemed colleagues got it wrong, wrong, wrong.
Where they cite that [McMurray] “he lacks subtext,” I disagree and wonder if we are operating from the same definition of the word. Subtext is described as “an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation” and using that definition they are incorrect. There is nothing shallow about “Burning Sands.” If anything he steps out and talks about issues that we, as African-American people, don’t like to discuss, like black-on-black violence.
His choice of crew should be highlighted especially the work of casting director Kim Coleman who demonstrates that there are no small parts. Her skills are superlative. Special acknowledgment to the director of photography Isiah Donte Lee and editor, Evan Schrodek.
Produced by Mandalay Pictures, Stephanie Allain’s Homegrown Pictures, Hudlin Entertainment and distributed by Netflix. The cast includes Trevor Jackson, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton, Trevante Rhodes, Rotini, Octavius J. Johnson, Mitchell Edwards, Malik Bazille, Imani Hakim, Nafessa Williams, Steve Harris, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Gerard McMurray and screenplay by Christine Berg and Gerard McMurray. The producers on record are Stephanie Allain, Jason Michael Berman, Reginald Hudlin and Mel Jones. The executive producers are Caroline Connor, Common, and Gerard McMurray.